October 18, 2009

Homestays become the next big thing: accommodations to learn to trust

Vacation home is the next big thing, or, should I say, it has already moved from the category of “best-kept-secret” to “everyone does it.” At least quite a few people, when you start talking to them, have done it or are planning to do it in the very near future.

Like with everything new, you have to get used to the idea of trusting someone as much as to lend this person your personal home to stay. Those, on their end, must trust you also – it’s not just “one way” street, both parties need to reach a relaxation level to be open for strangers to eat at your table, take shower in your bathtub and sleep on your bed. And there are still many of us who cannot do it, including myself. But at any point in time, we had to get used to an idea of a hostel, where one shares a bathroom with a floor of strangers, and a bedroom with four-to-six strangers. Nevertheless, all of us have tried it and stayed at hostels more than once.

Since I haven’t tried home-stays or home-exchanges myself, I've reached out to those who did do it.

It’s a common knowledge that we consider our homes our fortresses – and it should be this way – home is the place where we feel the safest, not to mention that it’s the place that holds our most valuables.

Based on the research foundings, all of those who did homestays had a great experience – I even thought it was too good to be true. One friend swapped her New York apartment in Manhattan for an apartment in the heart of Paris for a week – the story that got my initial attention to look into this new hot trend - home-staying - as Paris is one of my favorite travel destinations and I wouldn't mind to stay in the heart of it at no cost instead of staying at an expensive, impersonal hotel somewhere off the center. My friend ended up at a cozy, homey and clean apartment of someone who not only left the place for her and her boyfriend intack, but who also left her a welcome chocolates, a guide to the city, and phone numbers of his/her friends to get in touch in case of any questions she might have had – wouldn’t it blow your mind? It did mine. Read further to learn how to conduct such a homestay two-way situation successfully.

So, it takes us a long time - these many stories from someone who knows someone, and who knows someone who swapped their homes with the others in return for a stay at the comfort of not only a bathtub and a clean bedroom, but to be able to cook at a kitchen with the local farmer’s market produce, while at night having a glass of local wine at a balcony overlooking the lights of the City of Lights, Paris. That is if what I’m describing is an apartment in the 13th addorsment in Paris, which does have apartments overlooking the Parisian sites we came to visit – such as the Eiffel Tower.

Pricing for most of the worldwide popular locations costs in hundreds. Long gone years when one could get a deal of $40/night in Rome – and that is if you are traveling alone, what if you are traveling with a family or in couples and you’d like to have more comfort than a piece of toilet paper in your hotel bathroom? In Europe, it became quite popular to swap houses and apartments, often providing a five-star accommodations in the likes of cleanliness, locale, home appliances, space, breakfast, access to local friends, etc. European families often rent out spare rooms and provide a hot breakfast for travelers, who also receive healthy helpings of local advice from natives of the neighborhood. More often, Europeans provide their apartments in return for yours.

(Juliet Kinsman exchanged her Victorian terraced house in north-west London for a 2-bed flat in leafy Brooklyn. Photograph: Anna Schori)

Web sites such as HomeExchange.com advertise that members can travel with no more hotel bills by swapping homes with someone. A membership fee of $100 USD puts you into their database of willing home traders for unlimited usage in a year. The fee is on the high side at $100, but after it's paid, there are no further charges. Other sites will charge a fee with each exchange.

But one should know a different between home exchange and hospitality exchange. The first is when you exchange your home with someone at the relatively same time. Hospitality exchange, on the other hand, is exchanging the “hosting” of foreign guests in return to a promise that at some point you would return the favor and would provide hospitality to this person. Some people prefer this approach, which obviously takes away the element of concern about leaving your home in the hands of strangers.

Finding vacation homes on the Internet is becoming popular:

One Web site alone, HomeAway.com, claims more than 100 million annual traveler visits to browse a database of more than 160,000 vacation rental homes across 100 countries. The Texas-based company has affiliates in the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain.

A Miami-based competitor called Rentalo offers both travelers and travel agents vacation and business travel properties in all price ranges in cities and resort areas.

Besides homestay specific websites, other popular all-you-can-find sites started to offer an option for homestays and houseswaps. Craiglist does it now as well - offering vacational rentals and houseswaps ads and requests.

You can also always do a simple search for "vacation home rentals" and your destination and you should find either postings or travel message boards with the information sought.

See more sites here:

HomeLink

HomeForSwap

HomeForExchange

VacationalRentalsByOwners

Watch a homestay story that made it in the CBS news here.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid some basic scams when you house-swap over the CraigsList:

1. When you look for a house to swap, make sure the apartment you are home-staying at is clean, cozy, in a good location, and is available the same dates you want to visit.

2. Make sure the person who would be staying at your place is relatively normal: Facebook be-friending can take care of it (you get to know him/her, their friends, and see photos of them.)

3. Also, I would warn you to be careful because unlike with a hotel there are no guarantees - for instance, if the swapee's travel plans change at the last minute. In one of my friend’s situations, after she bought tickets for Paris, the French guy’s girlfriend suddenly couldn't go to USA anymore and they had planned on coming together. Fortunately, he was very cool and instead invited his parents to come with him. So the home-swap did take place, but it could have ended much worse. Your best defense against getting stuck with an airplane ticket and no place to stay is to make sure that you let the other person buy their ticket first. That's what my friends said she’d do next time.

4. And of course there is always “Oh, I can’t imagine anyone staying at my place; I don’t want anyone to touch my things and go in my toilet.” My other friend who also did houseswap was the same way, she never wanted any stranger staying at her place, and then suddenly, just didn't care anymore. So she went on the housing swap section of craiglist.

5. And if house-swapping is too much for you to handle on your own, and you are the only person in the family who is going on a trip, swap couches instead of houses. I’m not joking. Check out CouchSurfing, the site is offering services on finding “couch deals” to swap when you travel solo or in a very laid-back couple who does not need the whole place to yourself, but rather just an overnight bed. So, don’t be shy and share a house with someone else’s family, while the other person stays with yours.

House-swapping is the ultimate credit-crunch holiday - free accommodation and the chance to live like a local in a foreign city. It's not a crazy idea anymore that your friends might have called it once. Today, the desire to be able to travel and stay in some of the best locations in the world without spending a dime, might overcome the personal attitudinal obstacles such as - letting someone use your bathtub and tableware.


Read my next article, where I'll give you Dos and Donts for carrying on homestays.

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